Building a resilient free press for the future. Building a resilient
free press for the future.
Illustration by Amanda Sanchez


When Old Structures Break Down, New Opportunities Arise

By Heather Chaplin | April 20, 2020

This is a note to tell you about changes we’re making in response to COVID-19. 

Our analysis of the crisis of the free press hasn’t changed. Rather, the effects of COVID-19 have rushed us into the future we’d been bracing for. 

Local newspapers were already endangered. Now extinction looms.

In the last 15 years, one in four newspapers have closed, and in the last ten years, 50 percent of newsroom journalists have been fired. Hundreds of communities around the country no longer have even a single reliable source of local news. 

Since COVID-19 , newspaper ad sales — already decimated by years of consolidation, toxic media policy and the rise of the online attention economy — have sunk by around 30 percent, maybe more. (The LA Times reported on April 15 that its ad revenue had been all but eliminated.) Journalists have been fired, furloughed and sent home on half pay. Some publications have ceased to publish altogether. How the private equity firms buying up small and mid-sized newspapers as distressed assets will respond, we don’t know yet. 

Lots of industries have been hit hard by COVID-19. It’s not the newspaper industry per se we’re worried about. It’s what happens to our country without a robust news system. How do people protect themselves from exploitation without access to reliable information? Without a system for checking power? Without a place for deliberation and debate?

Research shows that when newspapers close, polarization goes up and fewer people vote. Fraud increases. And the lack of reliable news leaves a vacuum easily filled with propaganda. The very notion of democracy rests on citizens being capable of self-governing. To do this, we need an open exchange of information and ideas. We need a free press. It may not look like the one we had in the past. But we need some system that fulfills that function.

The Wicked Problem Task Force has been studying the crisis of the free press since 2016. The goal was to develop a 20,000-foot perspective in order to identify possible interventions. The goal was to stop seeing only parts of the problem and instead examine the forces at play that together create the whole.

Over the past few years, we’ve interviewed dozens of experts, compiled a research database, created a system map of the problem space, and hosted convenings. We’ve also been working on an agent-based simulation for modeling future scenarios. 

The effects of COVID-19 have now sent us careening into the future. The extinction of local news has just been accelerated by several years. If we do nothing, small and mid-sized local newspapers will be a thing of the past — and nothing will have been put in place to fulfill their vital function. 

On the other hand, when old structures break down, new opportunities arise. We don’t know what’s coming next. But we do know that whenever big transitions are in progress, it’s those who can keep a clear head who get to exert the greatest influence on shaping the future. In these moments of transition, changes that were once unthinkable become possible — changes both good and bad. 

Now is the moment to fight for the change we want. If we don’t, someone else will.

We’re eager to continue this conversation with others who care about the future of the free press. If you could intervene right now in what’s happening to our news systems, what would you do? What possibilities are emerging from the current crisis that weren’t there before? What should we be doing today to ensure that a resilient free press exists tomorrow?

You can share your ideas with us here.